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Palazzo Lancellotti (formerly de Torres) in Piazza Navona

Headquarters of Aspen Institute Italia in Rome

by Dr. Mario Bevilacqua, Associate Professor of Architecture History, University of Florence

Representing one of the most imposing patrician edifices in the extraordinary saturation of monuments that is Piazza Navona, Palazzo Torres (also called Lancellotti since 1656 by virtue of inheritance) is one of the masterpieces of Roman civil architecture of the Late Renaissance.

The palace was built to plans by the Neapolitan architect and intellectual Pirro Ligorio (1513-1583) by incorporating existing homes purchased in 1542 by Monsignor Luis de Torres (1495-1553), a native of Malaga who was appointed archbishop of Salerno upon the recommendation of Charles V. Within its interior, the door lintels on the piano nobile retain inscriptions recalling the archbishop as the original builder of the palace, making it possible to narrow down the date at which the main works had been completed as 1553.

The piano nobile preserves several important fresco decorations, begun during the first campaign of works but subsequently progressed by the archbishop of Salerno’s successors, notable among whom – given the exceptional Curial fortunes of the Spanish family now settled in Rome – were: Monsignor Ludovico (1532 -1583), the archbishop of Monreale; Ludovico II (1551-1609), made cardinal in 1606; and Cosimo (1594-1642), ordained cardinal in 1622. Together, they are emblematic of the patronage of Renaissance and Counter-Reformation Rome, an embodiment of the international milieu of the Papal Curia, and of an ethos that rapidly passes from the atmosphere of cultured evocation of the magnificence of ancient Rome and classical art and architecture, evident in the stylistic choices incorporated in the design of the palace, to the exaltation of Catholic orthodoxy which infuses the interior decorations commissioned by the de Torres bishops and cardinals in the second half of the sixteenth century.

The palace decorations in fact feature frescoed friezes and vaults adorned with “grotesques”, in an elegant sixteenth-century imitation to paintings and stucco works from the Imperial Age, landscapes (including several friezes attributed to Agostino Tassi, undertaken for the Lancellotti family in the first half of the seventeenth century), and biblical scenes. The wall frescoes of the double-heighted Grande Salone, showing scenes from the Victory of Lepanto in 1571, unfortunately very poorly preserved, were commissioned by Monsignor Ludovico de Torres, archbishop of Monreale, and celebrates the victory of the Catholic navy against the Turks, glorifying the figure of the patron himself who was active in organizing the international league against the Infidel at the behest of Pope Pius V (whose likeness is part of the decoration). These frescoes are the work of Roman painters who have so far remained nameless (the only contribution documented being that of the Piedmontese Casare Arbasia, who would later go on to paint in Spain and Turin). It stands up well, however, in a straight comparison with successful depictions of Christian military triumph, held up as an emblematic episode in the age of the Counter-Reformation, and draws direct inspiration from the frescoes by Giorgio Vasari in the Sala Regia of the Papal Palaces (begun for Pius V and completed for Gregory XIII in 1571-73), and from the ceiling of the church of Aracoeli, executed by the French woodcarver Flaminio Bolangier in 1571-74. The painted and gilded coffered wooden ceilings in the Palazzo Torres – in which the family crest appears as a recurring motif – are also rich and of splendid sixteenth-century workmanship, and hark back to the same artistic zeitgeist that was dominated by the figure of Bolangier.

The attribution of the architectural design of the Palazzo Torres Lancellotti to Pirro Ligorio was attested to in the early 1650s, with the publication of an etching by Pietro Ferrerio of the facade (the attribution to Vignola by Baglione in 1642 being completely unreliable). At the bottom of the sheet appears the inscription “The Palace of their most excellent Messrs.

Lancellotti in Piazza Navona, architecture by the highly celebrated painter and Neapolitan noble-born antiquarian Pirro Ligorio, built in the year 1560 for the then owners Messrs. de Torres”. At present, it is only possible to confirm the Neapolitan artist’s hand in the design – with Palazzo Torres representing his first and already assured architectural work – by examining the building’s stylistic features. An analytical study of documents pertaining to its construction has not yet been undertaken, although it seems plausible to assume that the caption to the etching picks up on established lore.

An analysis of the façade of Palazzo Torres reveals the smooth ashlar facing that is a recurring choice in Ligorio’s work, from the Casino of Pius IV in the Vatican gardens to the completion of the courtyard of Bramante’s Belvedere. It is an extremely elegant solution that characterizes a very specific strand of Roman architecture in the mid-sixteenth century, evocative of the magnificence of the marble slab cladding of Imperial architecture.

Pirro Ligorio was a key figure in the artistic and intellectual life of the Late Renaissance: an enthusiast of archaeological studies, painter, architect, versatile intellectual and courtier, he carried out work on some of Rome’s major building projects, including the Studium Urbis of La Sapienza, St. Peter’s in the Vatican (where he took over as architect after the death of Michelangelo), and the Villa d’Este in Tivoli. This link with the Este family of Ferrara led him to move to the capital of the  Duchy where he lived until his death, devoting himself to preparing a monumental Encyclopedia of antiquity that would meet with enormous success in the centuries that followed.

Bibliographical references:
There is unfortunately no in-depth monographic study on Palazzo Torres Lancellotti which analyzes the history of its changes of ownership, the phases of its construction and decoration, and its transformations over the centuries, whilst highlighting the importance of the work, its architect and commissioner in the broader context of the Italian Renaissance.

Some brief information may however be found in:
Armando Schiavo, I vicini di palazzo Braschi, in “Capitolium”, 1966, no.s 8-9 (also in C. Pietrangeli ed., Palazzo Braschi e il suo ambiente, Rome 1969, pp. 151-158)

Luigi Salerno, Palazzo de Torres Lancellotti, in Piazza Navona isola dei Pamphili, Rome 1970, pp. 271-276

Cecilia Pericoli Ridolfini, Guide Rionali di Roma. Rione VI, Parione, I, Rome 1973, pp. 64-70

Vincenzo Abbate, ‘Torres adest’: i segni di un arcivescovo tra Roma e Monreale, in “Storia dell’arte”, 2007, pp. 19-66